Last Night's Viewing: Homeland, Channel 4, 9pm

Homeland's back, and like all great puzzles its as complex and compelling as ever

"Previously on Homeland" read a title at the beginning of "The Smile", the first episode of a drama that returned to British viewers last night with six, box-fresh Emmys in its trophy cabinet.

Good luck with that, I thought. This convoluted tale about an American POW turned Islamist sleeper agent and the bipolar CIA spook determined to expose him was a challenge to summarise an episode at a time. Compressing a whole series into a minute and a half seemed a forlorn hope.

The fans, of course, won't really need it anyway, well aware that we left Carrie with a couple of hundred volts running through her temporal lobes and Brody poised ambiguously on the brink of a political career.

If entryism really is his new strategy it's working very nicely.

"I had you vetted by my search committee," says the Vice-President, dropping in on Congressman Brody to say that he's thinking of him as the running mate for his own presidential bid. "What did we miss Nick? What flaw in your character, what deep, abiding secret?" Brody smiles enigmatically and says nothing.

Meanwhile, Carrie is teaching English to immigrants and the Stars and Stripes are burning outside the American embassy in Beirut, after an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.

When one of Carrie's former assets says she has information about an imminent attack, but that she'll only deliver it to the woman who recruited her, Estes and Saul are forced to beg for help. "You'll be back in three days," Saul reassures her.

Brody is also being wooed by his former associates, contacted by a Palestinian television journalist with a message from Abu Nizar. They want him to steal information from Estes' safe during a security briefing.

"I am not a terrorist", he protests. But the intermediary insists – "Nicholas, we're at war. You have to choose which side you're on" – and eventually Brody seems to pick her side. The resulting scene, classic will-he-be-caught tension, wasn't exactly convincing. Who, in an era of smartphones, would laboriously transcribe a list of names by hand rather than simply taking a picture? Which isn't to say you don't edge forward in your seat all the same. The machinery might be well-worn but it still works.

In any case, the strength of Homeland isn't the occasionally dubious tradecraft (going through immigration at Beirut airport Carrie looks so transparently shifty even a six-year-old child would pull her in for questioning). It's the way it feeds human feeling into a spy thriller.

Two scenes exemplified that last night. In the first, Brody rowed with his wife after she discovered his conversion to Islam. When she threw his Koran to the garage floor he yelped with reflexive dismay (one assumes a stunt-double was used for the desecration) and he's later seen burying the damaged book in a reverential ceremony. In the current climate that was a genuinely bold thing to put before an American audience. In the other scene, Carrie, having extricated herself from a threatening situation in the field, gave a jittery little smile of exhilaration as she walked away. Danger, it seems, works far better than lithium to raise the spirits.

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